“Mary Reilly,” a drab, somnolent and expensive drama in which Julia Roberts plays the maid in the Jekyll-Hyde household, opened and virtually closed over last weekend.
Its tepid performance at the box office ($2.8 million for a movie that cost $70 million to make and market) has already tagged the film as not only one of the most visible mishaps of this still-young year but also of Roberts’ career.
Whatever the reasons for the flop - and studio executives insist that Roberts, who was paid in the $10 million range, was not to blame for a film whose director and writer failed to exploit her wistful charm, her famous smile and her seemingly naive sexuality - “Mary Reilly” proved yet again that star power in Hollywood is now largely a smoke-and-mirrors concept.
Roberts is not alone in her failure to translate star power into certain box-office success. Sylvester Stallone, Demi Moore, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandra Bullock and Denzel Washington are among the stars who are paid huge sums of money but have failed to deliver in recent films.
Like “Mary Reilly,” most of these films were made solely because the stars wanted to be in them.
The head of a major studio, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that star power is limited, and often meaningless, unless the film strikes a nerve. “There’s no justification for any of these high salaries unless you get the actor in a film with a terrific idea,” the executive said. “Look at ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus.’ The film was cheap. Richard Dreyfuss is no longer a star. But the idea counted.” (That film, about a suburban high school teacher who feels his life is a failure, has grossed more than $56 million.)
A number of executives and agents said that only three stars - Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey - seem to make choices that are foolproof because they play, essentially, the same roles time after time.
“Hanks is always the wide-eyed, almost innocent American who believes in the system, even when he’s dying of AIDS,” said one top executive, referring to the Hanks films “Forrest Gump,” “Apollo 13” and “Philadelphia,” in which he played a lawyer with AIDS. (Hanks turned down the title role in “Nixon,” which would have been an acting stretch and a box-office risk.)
“Tom Cruise plays the other version of the American dream, the cocky guy with the big smile who believes in himself, is a little selfish and finally has a heart of gold,” said the executive, pointing to films like “Rain Man,” “Top Gun” and “A Few Good Men.” His next film is “Mission Impossible,” due May 22.
“And Jim Carrey is, well, Jim Carrey,” the executive said.
With the average cost of producing and promoting a studio movie reaching $50 million, and with Hollywood churning out more movies (about 185 last year) than it had in two decades, star power had recently been viewed as a virtual insurance policy to lure audiences in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
Getting Julia Roberts or Sylvester Stallone or Harrison Ford once guaranteed that a film would open strongly on its all-important first weekend, and usually assured that the box office would be humming after that.
But as the impact of star power has become increasingly questionable, studios have continued to pay huge sums to actors and actresses. The sums, in fact, have gone steadily up.
In the $20-million-a-film club are Stallone, Carrey, Ford, Cruise and Bruce Willis, who commands that much for action films like “Die Hard.” Yet Stallone’s last few films, including “Judge Dredd,” and “Assassins,” were failures, and his future as an action star is uncertain.
Ford’s last film, “Sabrina,” a romantic comedy, a remake done largely because he wanted to do it, was a serious disappointment. So was Ford’s “Regarding Henry,” made in 1991.
Studio executives view Ford as a strong audience lure only when he portrays a thoroughly decent, under-siege action hero, as he did in “The Fugitive” and “Clear and Present Danger.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger is a case of big name, big salary, fickle audiences. A huge draw with the “Terminator” movies and “True Lies,” he failed to deliver in the 1994 comedy “Junior,” in which he played a pregnant man.
But two other comedies - “Kindergarten Cop,” in 1990, and “Twins,” in 1988 - proved successful, largely because the star more or less spoofed himself, playing a hulking muscle man masquerading as a kindergarten teacher in one film and portraying Danny DeVito’s genetically designed brother in the other.
Two of the highest-paid female stars have also proved limited in their box-office appeal. Demi Moore earns at least $12.5 million a film, largely because of the success of “Indecent Proposal,” in which she starred opposite Robert Redford in 1993, and “Disclosure,” with Michael Douglas in 1994. But more recently, “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Juror” flopped dismally.
Another top female star at the moment, Sandra Bullock, stumbled after her recent comedy “Two if by Sea” opened and died quickly.
Publicly, studio executives and producers enjoy bemoaning those huge paychecks (though they are themselves lavishly paid). Yet virtually all studios bow to exorbitant salary demands in signing suddenly “hot” actors to huge deals, creating a situation not unlike free agency in sports.
The difference is that there is no salary cap in the movies. Last summer, for example, Columbia Pictures opted to pay $20 million to Jim Carrey to star in the forthcoming film “Cable Guy” and signed Alicia Silverstone to a two-picture contract totaling $10 million following her performance in the hit comedy “Clueless.”
A result of these kinds of payoffs is a ripple effect, as other stars, believing their own worth has been challenged, up their salary demands.
This week’s Daily Variety reported, for example, that the comedian Adam Sandler had signed a deal with New Line Cinema for $5 million, based not even on a completed script but on a pitch by a writer, Tim Herlihy, who wrote the comedian’s current comedy, “Happy Gilmore.” Sandler has no track record in films, though “Happy Gilmore” is doing well so far.
Moreover, the newspaper reported, Robert De Niro was seeking $14 million to $16 million a film after word leaked out that Nicolas Cage was seeking that fee based on his Oscar-nominated performance in “Leaving Las Vegas.”
“As long as we’re making as many films as we are, as long as there are new buyers, this will continue,” said Joe Roth, chairman of Walt Disney Motion Picture Group. Others say the current studio system itself is antithetical to sensible economics. Executives are often hired at huge salaries, then disposed of with huge buy-outs.
One result is that executives have little vested interest in actually cutting costs, despite protestations to the contrary. Owners of major studios, like Rupert Murdoch (Fox), Edgar Bronfman Jr. (Universal), Gerald Levin (Warner Brothers), Sumner Redstone (Paramount) and even Michael Eisner of Disney, give enormous power to their lieutenants who make the deals with stars.
Many in the film business say privately that they view most of today’s stars as nonlasting phenomena. So what else is new? The biggest stars of the 1980s - Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray and Stallone - have faltered. Before them, Goldie Hawn, Cher, Ryan O’Neal, Sally Field and Burt Reynolds were stars, but no longer.
Last year Julia Ormond and Hugh Grant were briefly considered stars. Not any more.
At the moment, Brad Pitt and John Travolta are major stars whose recent films have, with an exception or two, proved successful. But only time will tell if they have the staying power of a Clint Eastwood or a Robert Redford.
Besides those actors and one or two others, few stars are expected to have the longevity of legends of the 1940s and ‘50s like Clark Gable, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford.